Gladiators Battle in Revived Jordan Games
By DALE GAVLAK
JERASH, Jordan - After a 2,000-year lull, games have again hit the sands of Jordan's famed Roman-ruin city of Jerash, 30 miles north of the capital, Amman, as a group of Jordanian investors and a Swedish history buff are re-creating gladiator matches and chariot racing at Jerash's 2nd Century hippodrome.
It's a tamer version, admittedly no lions, no lethal blows when the audience of tourists gives a thumbs down.
"We who are about to die, salute you," some dozen gladiators, clad in tunics and clasping silver swords and wooden poles bark out in Latin. The crowd goes wild as the strongmen fight, dust flying, heaving groans with every thrust of the sword.
The cheering audience issues a thumbs up or down for the victor and suddenly they are regaled with the thunderous clap of horse-drawn chariots circling the hippodrome.
"I thought it was great," Christine Nimer a tourist from Southport, Conn., said after a show Thursday. "We're headed to Rome and know we won't be seeing anything like this there. The re-enactment really brings people back in time."
Sporting a white toga bordered with a distinctive purple stripe, Stellan Lind the Swede who had the idea for the games serves as master of ceremonies.
"Our motto is to make the ruins come alive," said Lind, a former pharmaceutical chief and driving force behind the Roman Army and Chariot Experience, neatly dubbed "RACE."
Former Jordanian police and soldiers from the Jerash area play the Roman soldiers and gladiators. They were trained by British stuntmen for the fights.
"Not everyone can do this kind of work because it's dangerous," one the "legionnaires," Adnan Abbabneh, said after a match this week. "This is not child's play."
The gladiator matches started in mid-June. Chariot races are planned to begin later in July, with competitors running seven laps around the hippodrome, decked out in red, white, blue and green streamers. The chariots that thundered in during a show Thursday were just for dramatic effect, not to race.
Besides the gladiatorial exploits, the Roman legionnaires clad in brown tunics and bearing colorful red and gold shields and swords showcase training exercises with their weapons.
Jerash Gerasa, to the Romans is one of the best preserved Roman cities. It had its heyday in the first and second centuries, a major trading stop in the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire. The largely restored hippodrome or "Circus Gerasa" has a high stone structure seating 15,000 spectators on stone bleachers at one end. The oval track, some 244 yards long and 52 yards wide, is ringed by stone columns.
The city went into decline, finally hit by earthquakes in the seventh century. It was buried for centuries until a German traveler discovered it in 1806 and excavation began in the 1920s. "This is where it really happened," Lind said. "There is no other place in the world where you can see performances of Roman legionnaires, gladiators and chariot racing in a genuine Roman setting."
The film "Ben Hur" inspired Lind with the vision for re-enacting chariot racing. He came to Jordan five years ago and teamed up with Englishman Jeff Cullis and Jordanian engineer Fawaz Zoubi.
The games' official opening is expected in late September and King Abdullah II, Jordan's ruler, himself the owner of two suits of Roman legionnaire armor, is expected to preside.